Trump, Rubio, and Cruz: You Gotta Fight For Your Right to the Party

The main stage is seen prior to the start of the CNN GOP Presidential Debateon February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas.
Scott Halleran/Getty

At last, we got the three-way smackdown debate everyone wanted. It’s too bad so much time was burned off by the three irrelevant candidates on stage: John Kasich, Ben Carson, and the Telemundo host.

Next time, instead of using a bell to cut off candidates who talk too long, they should have a bell to cut off moderators who talk too long.

Single-issue agenda activists with journalist credentials are not “moderators.” Why is it so hard for media organizations to understand that the purpose of moderators is to introduce topics and enforce the debate rules, not get into drawn-out arguments with the candidates? (I know, it’s a trick question – they do understand that, and none of them will ever light into Hillary Clinton like that.)

The other moderators deserve credit for a job well done. I’ve seen some irritation expressed at Wolf Blitzer for throwing the narrative to that human Quaalude, John Kasich, every time the Trump-Rubio-Cruz battle got really good, but let’s cut Blitzer some slack. His job was to give everyone some time to talk. That’s not easy when the three white-hot candidates are constantly reference each other and creating a rolling avalanche of rebuttals.  

Since this is probably the last time we’ll see them, a few words about Kasich and Carson are in order.  

Kasich’s “you fix every problem by looking at everything and making a really great plan” schtick was more tedious than any glitchy repetitions Marco Rubio or Donald Trump ever made. Kasich’s take on the Apple vs. FBI standoff is frankly idiotic – lock them in a room with the President until they make a deal, without ever letting the public know what’s going on? That’s the exact opposite of what America needs.  

The issues at stake in the Apple-FBI argument are difficult questions of vital importance for the Information Age, and they should be litigated on the front page of newspapers, because we should all be thinking and talking about them. We’ve had more than enough secret backroom deals cut between a dictator-President and his corporate cronies, Governor Kasich. Have a nice trip back to Ohio.

As for Carson, he exits the most caustic, bombastic primary in memory as lovable as he was on the day he entered – bringing down the house when he asked someone to please attack him, so he could get some speaking time.

He made a rather profound point by noting that health care “is not a right, but it is a responsibility” – how desperately Americans, especially the arrested adolescents of the Democrat base, need a wise teacher who can explain the difference to them!  

Carson knows health care, and would make such a good Secretary of Health and Human Services that he might erase the memory of the incompetent boobs Barack Obama saddled us with, to this great nation’s staggering cost. However, it’s been clear for a long time Carson has no path to the nomination.  

We’ll argue for the rest of time about the criteria for including candidates in debates, at every stage of the nominating process, but this debate was all about Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. Every minute given to John Kasich, Ben Carson, and Telemundo Lady was a minute that would have been better spent on the three serious options, because this might very well be the voters’ last chance to choose between them.

It’s really tough to pick a winner from that three-way title fight, because Trump, Rubio, and Cruz were all at the top of their very different games. Dedicated supporters of all three should feel pleased that their man took his best shot last night. Yes, even Trump. It remains to be seen how much blood he loses from the wounds he took, and he always hits back hard enough to draw blood in return… a brutally effective strategy for the front-runner. He gets a black eye, maybe loses a tooth… and you kiss the canvas.

I’m inclined to score Rubio a narrow winner on overall points, because he used his time to make the case for why he should be the nominee, while Cruz used his prosecutorial style to explain why Donald Trump shouldn’t be. They made an effective team. It’s not very likely to happen, but I wonder what the effect on Super Tuesday would be if they formally became a team, with one dropping out and the other naming him as running mate.

Of course, both Team Cruz and Team Rubio will say their man performed so well that dropping out before Super Tuesday would be silly, which means they’ll probably split the vote and hand Trump the victories he needs.  

On strategic grounds, I’ve got to score Cruz the winner, because he did well enough to keep Texas on his plate, while Rubio still doesn’t look like he can actually win anywhere, including his home state. If he really does turn that around, and pull off some upset victories on Tuesday, his performance in this debate will become the stuff of political legend.

There are late deciders in primaries, to be sure, but it seems like it’s been a long time since the course of a primary changed dramatically after the voting began. A lot of people make up their minds by the time Iowa and New Hampshire are done, and attacks on their chosen candidate only harden their resolve. The snowball effect of winning the early races generates a great deal of momentum.  

Cruz and Rubio were shrewd to attack Trump’s greatest asset, his momentum, giving GOP primary voters a vision of Trump crashing and burning in the general election. They also finally adapted to his blustery style, after a long period of shock over his ability to violate the rules of debate and decorum with impunity.  

Rubio’s clash with Trump over health care reform was just the kind of contrast Rubio needed to draw: a detailed command of the issues, an ability to make a case that will positively appeal to persuadable general-election voters, versus Trump’s hollow but deafening thunder.

But here’s the rub: a lot of voters still identify with Trump, far more than with Rubio or Cruz.

Identification has been Trump’s secret weapon all along. Sure, he’s entertaining, and he did an absolutely amazing job of demolishing the other candidates, back when there were 16 of them. He turned Jeb “Shock and Awe” Bush into a $150 million firecracker that sputtered for a while without ever going off. He made A-list pundits look like fools for confidently declaring that some other candidate had “destroyed” or “castrated” him during previous debates.  

He threw down the iron gates of political correctness, shrugging off gaffes that should have terminated any other campaign. The mainstream media – Hillary Clinton’s little helpers – were like the surveillance tank crew in Independence Day, reporting with awe and dismay the results of a nuclear strike on the alien warship over Houston: “The target remains.”

Trump’s confidence sells very well after years of Barack Obama’s abject failure and corruption, his endless lowering of the standards America sets for both its leadership and itself. After years of being told to accept the incompetent execution of billion-dollar projects, zero accountability for abuses of power, foreign policy that made America a joke to its enemies and a menace to its friends, and a New Normal of economic mediocrity, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” really is a hell of a rallying cry. It’s exactly what people want to hear, especially Republicans dejected over party leadership even worse than Obama’s national leadership.

Trump voters really want to watch him hit Hillary Clinton and the GOP Establishment like an H-bomb. He captures their disgust with corrupt government in a more visceral way than Cruz does.  

Cruz was very sharp to present himself, in this final pitch to Super Tuesday voters, as the guy they really want prosecuting the bipartisan gang of mediocrities inside the Beltway for aggravated assault on the American Dream, and loitering along the Potomac. He had a great moment when he told Trump he wants to win, not make deals with Democrats, and touted his unpopularity on Capitol Hill as a badge of honor – proof he’s a dedicated and effective adversary of the system so many Americans despise.

Cruz did the best job of anyone in this race to steal Trump’s thunder, but that’s a lot of thunder, and Cruz hasn’t been able to forge the bond of identification that Trump has. Cruz’s gifts create some distance from the ordinary voter.  Does anyone doubt who would win a “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” polling contest between Trump and Cruz? It seems like a silly metric, but it was the defining metric of the 2012 race – the one exit-polling question where Obama absolutely stomped Mitt Romney.  

Granted, the likely Democrat candidate this time around is a charisma-free robot with no discernible skill at lying despite a lifetime of practice, but identification will be forcibly manufactured for Hillary Clinton by her friends, donors, and former employees in the media. Literally half the country will be instructed to vote for her because she has the same genitalia they do, while any man who dreams of voting with the same criteria will be made to feel ashamed of himself. The Democrats’ dependency army cares about nothing except keeping their benefits coming, and would vote for a bowling ball with a wig on it.  

It’s not easy to create a natural sense of identification that can overwhelm those advantages, but Trump seems able to do it… perhaps even with a decent number of Bernie Sanders supporters who seriously loathe Clinton, and feel betrayed by the outcome of the Democrats’ rigged primary. It’s hard to imagine Cruz building a rapport with those folks, and Rubio will probably fare only a little better, once the Democrat media finishes smearing him as the Hispanic Uncle Tom. (That’s what Telemundo Lady’s job was last night, in case you nodded off during her diatribes.)

Trump critics comfort themselves by dismissing his supporters as fools and vicious fringe types, which doesn’t seem like a very good strategy for winning them over… and it’s factually incorrect, as clearly demonstrated by Trump’s victory margins. If you think he’s winning by appealing to some lunatic fringe, you are simply wrong, and your error can be empirically demonstrated with both Super Tuesday polling and the cold, hard results of primaries gone by.  

Cruz and Rubio didn’t just change the game by learning how to talk over Trump while he’s talking over them; they seem to have figured out why so many Republican primary voters made an understandable decision to get behind the antimatter opposite of the guy who got creamed in 2012. (Trump gets that too, and explicitly said so during the debate, possibly because Mitt Romney irked him by attacking him on tax returns.)

Trump supporters forgive him a lot of errors, personal flaws, ideological impurities, and dubious personal history because they can see themselves talking like he does, if they were up on that debate stage. They like his attitude, and they aren’t crazy to think the attitude of the Republican Party needs adjusting.  

Maybe Rubio and Cruz finally hit Trump hard enough to shake the faith of his peripheral supporters last night, by conjuring the specter of Democrat-media hit squads going nuts over the summer with stuff like Trump University, hiring practices that don’t line up with his America First rhetoric, and whatever the hell is going on with his taxes.  

It’s going to be interesting to watch primary voters digest Trump saying he’s been audited every year, since the middle of the Bush Administration, because he’s such a “good Christian” – the kind of Christian who can’t stop heaping praise on the nation’s biggest, richest, most heavily-subsidized abortion mill. But I’m warning the rest of Punditopia right now: people can laugh with Donald Trump at the same time they’re laughing at him. Underestimate that unique charisma at your peril.  

Maybe it’s too late, and the GOP primary electorate has made its choice, having already passed a grim verdict against Rubio for his Gang of Eight folly, and judged Cruz unable to lead the kind of electoral charge that can overrun the shrill Mouth of Sauron when she and her horde of media orcs line up outside the Black Gates of Mordor-on-the-Potomac.  

Why did it take so long for the rest of the GOP field to understand that their voters are looking for a war leader in 2016? It took a consummate outsider, a man who became Republican the day before yesterday, to truly identify with a Republican electorate despised by its own party leadership.  

That electorate might have been dismissed as kooks and Nazis a few times too often by their own Smart Set to change their minds now. They might have been permanently turned off by all the “I’m staying home or voting for Hillary if Trump wins!” spoiled-brat whining from the same people who used to excoriate Trump for thinking about a third-party run, back when they were utterly convinced he’d flame out before Iowa.  

The final twist of the 2016 race could be Rubio and Cruz undone by the very “opinion leaders” most eager to help them, at the moment when they finally figured out how to reach Trump’s voters.